There’s a phrase that echoes throughout Rams, the latest design documentary from Helvetica and Objectified director Gary Hustwit: “less, but better.” This clean and laser-focused mantra economically encapsulates the philosophy of the film’s subject, German industrial designer Dieter Rams. No dangly bits, no flash-in-the-pan excess. Just function, whittled down to the off-white bone. Counterintuitively, we’re told, the best design is less design.
The film offers a portrait of Rams’ life and work, ebbing between intimately domestic and professional scenes that ultimately (or perhaps, inevitably) resemble one another. After all, this was Rams’ ethos: that things ought to be useful and unobtrusive in such a way as to allow engagement with the things that really matter. At 86, lively as ever, Rams’ home and the galleries exhibiting his life’s work are almost indistinguishable; indelible proof that Rams’ is a design meant to be lived-in.
Elegantly made, and lovingly shot, this is the first documentary to focus on Rams, who has made a point of shunning his own celebrity. We trail Rams as he migrates from his Japanese-inspired garden to lectures, to exhibition openings, with interjections from the likes of designer Naoto Fukasawa and Rams’ collaborator Dietrich Lubs. Beautifully scored by Brian Eno, the film is primarily concerned with Rams’ iconic work at Braun and Vitsœ, where he revolutionized consumer product design by implementing an approach that placed functionality on a pedestal over the cheap and the chic. It’s gesamtkunstwerk for the modular minimalist’s soul; an attitude to art that is philosophy and vice versa.
Rams encapsulated his ethos in his “Ten Principles for Good Design,” a list of edicts that emphasize simplicity, honesty, and restraint. It reads more like an epistemology than a professional credo; like an outline of a mindful attitude by way of mindful design. If we are products of our environment, surely, Rams advises, we ought to put some thought into the things we fill this environment with.
For a doc about how well-made stuff can positively affect our lives, Rams is not wantonly pro-consumerism. Rather, agreeing with its subject, the film argues that a good design is a design that goes unnoticed and works the first time. There’s an unspoken irony to the resemblance between Rams’ Braun T3 pocket radio and the original iPod. Technology is a huge part of our lives and it is starting to become unclear if we rule, or are ruled, by the digital world. Is burning through distracting stuff the best way to live life?
Rams doesn’t think so and I’m liable to agree. Of course, it would be better to live like Dieter, but one suspects the praxis of culling clutter and surrounding oneself with less (but better) things is easier said than done. But neither the film nor Rams himself are here to instruct. If there is a call to action it is a soft one, pleaded by Ram’s refusal of disposable decadence, which while culty and overly clinical at times, ultimately radiates with a love for the world, and a desire to live in it, free from distraction.
You can catch Rams on the big screen in limited release. The film will be available for digital release December 14th.